Richard Brooks directed a 1967 film called In Cold Blood, based on a recent book by Truman Capote of the same name. The book and film are about the then-recent murder of the Clutter family in Kansas. Wikipedia opines that “Although the film is in parts faithful to the book, Brooks made some slight alterations.”

And that goes to the heart of my question.

Criterion published the film with their typically copious bonus features. I have watched the film and the bonus features, but I’ve never read the book. And I’m having trouble understanding how the film owes anything at all to the book, other than the association of the title “In Cold Blood” to the murder of the Clutter family.

Both Capote and Brooks were very dedicated to getting the facts right. They both did significant research and took great pains to capture the details of the event. But Capote says that he wasn’t really interested in the event itself; rather, he saw it as an opportunity of writing a non-fiction novel, trying to realize his ambition of using literary technique in connection with a completely factual account.

I agree that the literary ambition is interesting, but given that ambition, it does not seem that the film can be seen as a reflection of the book simply because it also gets the fact right. Another film-maker who had never heard of the book, or working before Capote wrote his book, would also have used the same names of the killers (their real names) and the same location of the crime (its real location) and so on.

The book devotes roughly as much time to the Clutters as to their killers, so that the author describes it as being about these six characters (four Clutters and two killers). The film is not like this at all; it is almost exclusively about the killers. Also, Brooks says (in an interview on the Criterion disk) that the book cuts back-and-forth in time, in a way that seemed unlikely to work as a film. So, he tells the story in chronological order.

The film also added a character, a reporter who expresses Brooks’ feeling that the death penalty achieves nothing. This note seems out-of-place in a story that is virtually an advertisement for the death penalty. The film’s title “In Cold Blood” was apparently ironic, in referring to both the murders and the subsequent executions, while Capote had no such axe to grind with his book, as he never meant to express any attitude toward capital punishment.

So in what ways is the film In Cold Blood an adaptation of the book rather than a completely independent telling of the same events?

Adressing some of the comments:

I’m not challenging anyone’s legal or moral right to say that the film is based on the book, or anyone’s legal or moral right to say that the sky is yellow. I’m just asking whether the film is based on the book.

Some films are adaptions of books, objectively speaking, and litigation often depends on this kind of analysis.

The point here is not whether the conclusion is proven to a certainty, but whether the supporting arguments are objective or subjective. For example, the films Amadeus and The Last King of Scotland were based on earlier works, and if the film studios had proceeded to make just those films, with different titles and without regard for existing literary rights, it would have been very hard to convince any jury that the films were not based on the books and plays that they were in fact based on. The argument (to establish this relationship of film to earlier works) would not be subjective – about whether the films or plays or books are good – but on the objective assessment of the probability that the film-makers would have chosen those approaches to their stories if the book had not shown the way.

If the film In Cold Blood HAD followed the book in jumping around in time, giving equal attention to the six characters of the book, etc., those would support the claim of an adaptation because they would represent ways that the artistic choices of the author, choices another author or film-maker might have made differently, were adopted by this film-maker so that this film might represent the book rather than just the historical events. Are there ANY respects in which this film DID follow the book, other than the trivial ones which I mentioned originally?

  • 1
    To answer this question, we'd probably need to figure out what it really means to be a film adaptation, or maybe just, what does it mean for a film to be an adaptation of a nonfictional text. And the problem there is that that question is probably opinion-based.
    – Juhasz
    May 8, 2023 at 21:55
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    If the film is based on the book in the minds of the screenwriter, director, and/or producers and they wanted to credit the book as inspiration for the film, that is all that is required for the film to say “based on the book…” How is the film based on the book? You answered the question yourself: it has the same title and is about the same event. That is more than some films described as being based on books share with their “source material”. May 9, 2023 at 17:40
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    I have tried to emphasize a few key points to outline the question a bit more so people don't get lost in it. I also trimmed part of your responses to some of the comments. While it is good that you adressed some of the critique on your question, the question is really not the place for meta commentary (if not to say ranting) of that kind and it was distracting from your otherwise good question. If you have any points to make about the on-topicness of this question, feel free to bring it to meta. However, I don't think 2 close-votes, a few comments and a score of +2 is cause for alarm yet.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    May 11, 2023 at 11:30
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    @Napoleon Wilson Basically, my problem is that I'm not really interested in the Marvel Comic Universe or Better Call Saul. I'm always hoping to find film buffs here, I'm disappointed to get nowhere, and my annoyance tends to fall on people who make those sorts of procedural objections, although to be fair they're not responsible for the fact that nobody in the world seems to be interested in my question about In Cold Blood. I guess I'm not exactly alarmed; if nobody knows, nobody knows.
    – Chaim
    May 11, 2023 at 18:01
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    @Chaim 3/-1 votes means most of the voters are interested in and/or find your question useful. Only 2 close votes (out of 5 needed to close a question) and 3 reviewers voting to leave the question open are not cause for any concern. That is fairly common for an SE site question. May 12, 2023 at 4:46


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